franciscan - May 1998
© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998
Communicating God through Liturgy
by Michael Perham
‘We are made for worship. We worship because we can do no other.’ That is what a long Christian tradition affirms. I understand what such statements are trying to say, but I am not entirely convinced. Unless we define ‘worship’ in so broad a way that we deprive it of meaning, it simply does not seem to be true that human beings can do no other. People live contented lives giving worship to nothing. It is not so much that their worship is given to false gods, but that the capacity to worship anything seems in danger of being lost.
Nevertheless, for the religious believer or enquirer, once there is a belief in God or even a longing for the divine, worship follows, for worship is the approach to God, desiring to be in communication with him. ‘Worship’ of course is wider than liturgy. At one level it is an attitude of mind or soul.
Certainly part of it is in praying, the sort of praying we often call ‘private’ or ‘personal’, though both words have their difficulties, for the prayer of individuals is always part of something bigger than themselves. But liturgy is part of it too, and, for many Christians, a major part of it. Liturgy, of course, is that combination of word and music, silence and space, action and gesture that enables the people of God together to draw close to God. When we celebrate the liturgy it seems to be something of our own initiative. We celebrate because we want to give God glory, we want to draw close to him. But the reality is that our very desire is at the prompting of his Spirit. It is also that, because he is a God of graciousness, our approach to him always meets a response. Worship is always turned into relationship. Always there is reciprocity. Certainly there is communication, but only on the way to something deeper, communion with God. We offer our worship. God, whose nature is always to accept what we offer but to turn it into a gift, makes of it a moment of encounter, so that in giving we find ourselves receiving.
All this is very ideal. Often liturgy leaves us untouched. Sin, staleness and tiredness all get in the way. We do not come away from every liturgical experience with our communion with the living God renewed or our conviction of his reality strengthened. But we know that these things can and do happen sometimes, especially if we long for it to be so.
When Christian people gather to celebrate the liturgy, something of God is communicated. The communication is at two levels. First there is an objective kind of communication of God, or of the things of God, to anybody who stumbles into the service, be they believer, enquirer or totally detached observer. For what such a person receives is the Church’s picture of God or, more accurately, a series of pictures of God. Because we are a religion of ‘the word’, our liturgy presents us with pictures or stories that reveal the God in whom we believe. In a sense every aspect of the liturgy communicates God, certainly every word of the liturgy communicates God, but in particular these pictures and stories come through in the proclamation of the scriptures, in the recitation of the creeds and in the cycle of the Christian Year.
It is because God is communicated through the words of the liturgy that people are right to care deeply about the words they use. Synods are right to take painstaking care over the words they authorise lest inappropriate pictures, ‘false doctrine’, become enshrined in the liturgy. People are right when they recognise that the kind of words with which they worship indicate quite a lot about the nature of the God in whom they believe. Those who fight to ensure that the language they use to address God in worship is as near to the language of the contemporary ‘man in the street’ as possible are giving a different picture of God from those who are happy to worship him in language far removed from that of every day. Those for whom the beauty and poetry of language is a matter of the first order have a different perception of God from those whose primary interest is its easy accessibility.
From the words of the liturgy the Christian belief about God is conveyed in pictures and stories as well as in the style of the words used. But, for a second and deeper level of communication, there has to be a degree of openness at the very least, engagement and even willingness for encounter on the part of the person who comes into the Christian assembly at worship. Such openness is needed if what is to be communicated is not simply the Church’s image of God, but the reality of God himself. Where there is this openness, there can be a communication that begins to merge into communion, and which is a personal authentication of the Church’s image.
But liturgy is more than word. It involves all the senses; the whole human being is engaged. The liturgy involves action and gesture (even in churches that hardly recognise that this is part of the way they worship). In ordinary human relationships we communicate with gesture, with touch, with symbolic action. We do this because experience has taught us that actions speak louder than words. The Church understands this and so communicates God through its great sacramental forms – supremely in the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist – but also through the little gestures that speak of friendship, community, prayerfulness and blessing that are part of every service. We live in an age where, at some levels, people seem blind to the symbolic. They do not look for meaning unless it is explained, even if that often means explaining away. Yet, rather to the contrary, we sometimes see, as after a great national tragedy or the death of the princess, a simple turning by ordinary people to actions that speak louder than words. So the language of symbol is not as alien to our culture as some might think. If it does communicate, it is all the more important that when it speaks of God it communicates the truth as we perceive it. Too much of what we do in church, if it does speak of the divine, seems to suggest an unapproachable and unattractive god. Liturgy can communicate false gods as well as the good news of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Yet liturgy is also song and silence, crucial if we are not to imagine that liturgy, working through words and gestures, reveals all there is to tell about God. For part of what liturgy communicates of God, probably more through silence and through music, is the inaccessibility of God, the mystery, the unknowing at the heart of all things. It is not a cold unknowing, nor an uncomfortable mystery (at least not most of the time). It is a mystery that draws, that hints of love, that warms. But it does not reveal all. There is a kind of divine reticence. God communicates his love and his approachability, but guards his otherness.
So liturgy has huge potential to communicate more of God than anything else within the Church’s life, but quite properly has also the capacity to clothe him in mystery. For Christians are people who stand in the presence of God with confidence to serve him, yet also are brought to their knees. The disinterested, who stumble into worship, may be puzzled, bored, fascinated, touched or even swept off their feet. But only when there is the beginnings of relationship will there be the kind of communication of God’s nature that can turn into communion. It is in that communion that God reveals as much of himself as we can receive. §
The Very Revd Michael Perham is Provost of Derby and a member of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England. He has been a Companion of SSF since his youth. His new book, due out in September 1998, is entitled The Sorrowful Way: the mind of Christ, the path of discipleship & the Christian Year, SPCK.
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